Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

The NYT on the End of Mideast Christianity

Egyptian Copts, one holding a Coptic Christian cross, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. Christians and Muslims throwing rocks clashed in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

 Photo from Christianity Today

Eliza Griswold’s major piece on Mideast Christians in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend is getting lots of well-deserved attention. The Times, more than almost any other media publication, can place items on the national agenda, and both it and Griswold deserve credit for covering the crisis facing Christianity in Syria and Iraq. Griswold makes a couple of mistakes in the article–she incorrectly describes the beliefs of Oriental Orthodox Christians and ascribes the Armenian Genocide to “nationalism, not religion,” when in fact the genocide resulted from both–but, on the whole, it’s a very impressive piece, and well worth reading.

As an American, I was particularly struck by Griswold’s description of how the United States has abandoned Mideast Christians. Really, we are doing next to nothing to help these poor people. “Wait a minute,” someone might object. “How has the US abandoned them? And why do we have to do anything? We’re not responsible for righting every wrong that occurs in the world, and anyway we were in Iraq, trying to help, for years. It didn’t work. Let Iraqis and other local populations settle this for themselves. It’s not worth more American lives.”

I understand the appeal of this objection, but it depends on not a little willful amnesia. Of course, the parties who bear principal responsibility for the persecution of Christians are local Islamists like ISIS. But the US itself bears indirect responsibility. The US invasion in 2003 led to this situation, by creating anarchy and unleashing long-repressed sectarian resentments. And by abruptly leaving Iraq, we have allowed the crisis to intensify. A Catholic bishop Griswold quotes says it well. “Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity. What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’ Having helped to create this crisis, the US has a moral obligation to do something to help. We can’t simply abandon these people–and Griswold makes clear that both the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve blame in this–as though we had nothing to do with exposing them to danger in the first place.

As of now, Griswold reports, the US has done very little. (This morning’s announcement of a potential US-Turkish alliance to fight ISIS in northern Syria seems driven largely by Turkey’s desire to preempt Kurdish gains; I doubt most of the region’s Christians hope for much out of it). The US is doing nothing to speed up immigration applications from Mideast Christians, notwithstanding the obvious persecution they are suffering. Even humanitarian assistance has been lacking.

Griswold correctly diagnoses the problem. Mideast Christians have few allies in American politics. Conservatives don’t feel much affinity for Mideast Christians, who often favor Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and liberals have a hard time seeing any Christians as sympathetic victims. As someone once observed, Mideast Christians have the misfortune to be too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left.

I hope Griswold’s timely piece can do something to help change America’s response. You can read her whole essay here.

Same-Sex Marriage and Our New Religious Politics

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Photo from Wikimedia

In the last week, two interesting polls have appeared, one from the Associated Press and the other from the Washington Post, on Americans’ reactions to the Supreme Court’s June ruling in the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Taken together, the polls reveal that America is more divided on the question than first appeared. And the polls reflect an unfortunate, new religious dimension in American politics.

Notwithstanding the widespread acclaim for the decision in the days following Obergefell, it turns out that many Americans do not favor making same-sex marriage a constitutional right. In the AP poll, only 39% said they approved of the Court’s ruling, while 41% said they disapproved. In the Washington Post poll, a bare majority, 52%, said they approved the Court’s decision, while 44% disapproved. These results are much closer than one would have expected, given the immediate media reaction to the ruling.

Now, the fact that many Americans disapprove of the Court’s decision doesn’t mean the decision is wrong. Constitutional law doesn’t turn on opinion polls. (As it happens, I think the Court’s opinion is wrong as a constitutional matter, for reasons I explain here). And one must be careful about reading too much into polls, especially polls that follow an unusual recent event. In time, public opinion may settle in favor of the Court’s decision, especially given the fact that younger Americans apparently support same-sex marriage in significant numbers. Besides, people could disapprove of the Court’s decision for reasons that do not directly relate to the merits. Americans are generally in a bad mood about the state of our country these days, and the polls may simply reflect that dissatisfaction.

All that said, these polls seem significant to me, for three reasons. First, they demonstrate that opposition to the Court’s decision is not a fringe phenomenon. Forty-four percent of the country is not an insignificant group. Dissenters may be reticent about expressing their opinion publicly—or, indeed, to pollsters, which suggests the percentage of opponents may be even higher—but they are not a trivial proportion of the population. America is apparently still divided on the question of same-sex marriage, and this division will doubtless make itself apparent in our politics. More on this below.

Second, the results hint that some people who oppose the Court’s decision may do so out of concern for religious freedom. In the AP poll, for example, 56% said that religious liberty should take precedence over gay rights, the implication being that people anticipate a conflict between the two. They should. At oral argument in Obergefell, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli himself acknowledged the potential for conflict, on questions like tax exemptions for religiously-affiliated institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

Finally, there is an unmistakable partisan divide. In the AP poll, a large majority of Democrats gave priority to gay rights, while a large majority of Republicans said religious freedom is more important. The extent of the divide is truly startling. “By a 64-32 margin, most Democrats said it’s more important to protect gay rights than religious liberties when the two are in conflict,” the AP reports. “Republicans said the opposite, by 82-17.”

This polarization is worrisome. Up till now, America has been spared the bitterness of religious politics. Unlike some countries in Europe, we have not had clerical and anti-clerical parties. True, particular religious groups have gravitated toward one or another political party. In New England, for example, Irish Catholics were historically Democrats and mainline Protestants Republicans, a conflict memorialized in films like John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.

But we have never had secular and religious parties as such. Both parties saw religion, in general, as a good thing, and religious liberty as a fundamental American value. Tocqueville noticed this and found it refreshing. “In the United States,” he observed, “if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.”

Perhaps the political consensus on the value of religion is breaking down. More and more, one of our two major political parties is identifying itself as secular, and the other as religious. That’s not to say that all Democrats are secularists and all Republicans religious believers—of course not. Just ask the folks at Secular Right. And people could value religious freedom but believe other interests outweigh it in particular cases. Still, there seems a clear trend: religious freedom is becoming a partisan issue. That’s a very bad thing for America. You might even say it’s un-American. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t continue.

Bill Kristol Interview with Samuel Alito

This item is getting some deserved attention: Bill Kristol has posted a long-form, uninterrupted interview with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on his “Conversations with Bill Kristol” site. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the inner workings of the Court and the intellectual debates that have informed American law for the past generation. Justice Alito’s discussion of his dissent in Obergefell, which you can access here, will particularly interest readers of this site. Alito argues that the case represents a return to an unmoored jurisprudence of unenumerated rights, divorced both from constitutional text and national history and tradition. Worth watching.

Greece and the Price of Europe

Alexis Tsipras, head of the anti-bailout Syriza party, speaks during a financial conference in Athens on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.  Tsipras said that Greece’s battered economy could not recover unless the money owed to other Eurozone country’s was cut significantly. The leader of Greece’s popular left-wing opposition says he will demand a massive debt haircut from bailout lenders if his party comes to power in a possible snap election early next year. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Last week was a momentous one for the European project. On Monday, the Greek Parliament passed an austerity package that other Eurozone members, especially Germany, had demanded as a condition for considering Greece’s request for an €86 bailout. Negotiations will now begin. How they will end is anybody’s guess.  No one thinks the austerity package itself will solve the economic crisis Greece faces, and pretty much everyone thinks it will lead to years of misery for the nation. Greece already owes creditors an unsustainable €320 billion. But Germany argues that EU rules prohibit any debt reduction for Greece. Perhaps the parties will find a way to extend Greek payments without calling it a debt reduction. I’m sure the lawyers are working on it.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Yes, Greece misled people about the state of its finances when it joined the euro and has spent beyond its means. And the left-wing Syriza government greatly misjudged the mood in Europe and allowed itself to be completely outmaneuvered. But the banks that made the loans should have known Greece was in no position to pay. Having collected their commissions, they passed the debts to national governments–privatized gains and socialized losses–and walked away. As for those national governments, they should have known a common currency without a common fiscal policy was an unworkable proposition. They ignored this truth in pursuit of the illusion of a common Europe, extending from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Greece is now paying the price for that illusion.

All this has been said before. But I’d like to draw attention to a small element of the austerity package Greece’s creditors demanded, one that has largely escaped notice. Under the terms of the package, in order to stimulate commerce, Greece will have to repeal its restrictions on Sunday store openings. From now on, nationwide, Sunday will be a shopping day. (Two years ago, Athens allowed Sunday shopping in 10 tourist areas, a move that led to protests). Presumably, Greeks will respond by buying and selling and generally growing their economy. The increased tax revenues will allow Greece to pay some of its debt. And repeal of anti-liberal Sunday closing laws will allow Greece to create a rational European economy, like Germany’s—though, ironically, German stores are closed Sundays.

We Americans are likely to view this matter as trivial. In America, as Robert Louis Wilken once wrote, the only thing that distinguishes Sunday from other days of the week is that the malls open a little later. Besides, a country can’t be pre-modern forever. Sunday closing laws are hopelessly old-fashioned and illiberal. If Greeks want to stay home on Sundays, they can; but people should be able to shop if they want to.  Resistance probably comes from interest groups that oppose free competition.

But Greece isn’t America or Germany, or at least it didn’t want to be, and the reform is indicative of a larger issue. The Sunday closing laws reflected the fact that Greece had values in addition to the market. Greece has had a tradition of Sunday closings to allow people to spend time with family and attend church. (Sure, lots of people watch football instead, but that’s a different matter. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue). The ban on Sunday trading acknowledged that Greece is an Orthodox Christian country, with its own rhythms and ways of life. No matter. In Europe today, if it’s a choice between religious and cultural traditions, on the one hand, and commerce, on the other, commerce wins.  That’s the economically sound choice.

I don’t suppose there’s anything to be done. Greece is in a terrible situation and needs to find a way out. And I know it’s a small matter, compared to the other hardships Greeks will have to bear. But something important is being lost. To be part of the European project, apparently, a country must do whatever it can to become a secular, consumerist, market-oriented place—Sundays included. Localized cultures that stand in the way of economic rationality must recede. Perhaps that’s the inevitable logic of modernity. But it’s not an image the Christian Democratic founders of Europe like Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman would have recognized.

About Those Religion Surveys …

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Image from Patheos

The latest edition of First Things magazine, currently available only in print, contains an important piece by Princeton sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow, “In Polls We Trust.” Actually, it’s one of the most important pieces on American religion I’ve read in quite a while. Not for what it says about American religion, necessarily. Wuthnow’s piece is important because of what it says about the polls on which everyone, academics included, rely for insights on American religion.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of these surveys. Scholars pore over the results to ascertain trends, and, on the basis of those trends, to evaluate the state of American institutions: churches, government, courts. For example, the much touted rise of the “Nones,” the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation, has implications for our First Amendment jurisprudence. The fewer Americans who identify with institutional religion, the weaker we can expect First Amendment protections to get.  Or so some scholars, myself included, have argued.

Of course, everything turns on the accuracy of the surveys. Most of us, not being statisticians, more or less take them on faith. If Wuthnow is right, though, our faith is misguided. He points out that many surveys of American religion have serious methodological flaws. For example, religion does not always lend itself to straightforward yes/no questions of the sort surveyors ask. In addition, pollsters sometimes fail to account for regional and racial variations.

Most important, response rates are very low. The typical response rate nowadays is about nine or 10%, and rarely exceeds 15%. “In other words,” Wuthnow writes, “upwards of 90% of the people who should have been included in a poll for it to be nationally representative are missing. They were either unreachable or refused to participate.” With such poor response rates, it’s hard to know what the polls reveal about religion in America. This problem is compounded by the fact that the media present the results as accurate representations of what Americans believe – a misimpression that the polling industry, now worth a billion dollars a year, is understandably reluctant to correct – and by the fact that most of us “are unlikely to wade through obscure methodological appendices to learn if the response rate was respectable or not.”

Consider the rise of the Nones, for example. Maybe we really are seeing an explosion in the number of Americans without a religious affiliation, as these surveys suggest. But maybe we aren’t. Maybe the number of Nones is actually much lower. Maybe the number is much higher. Wuthnow’s point is, it’s hard to know on the basis of flawed polls. Now, to be sure, there are other indications that organized religion is declining. Some churches keep membership records; these are harder numbers, and they show that some churches are experiencing declining memberships. Still, one has to be a little careful about declaring trends on the basis of limited information.

The inaccuracy of the polls is more than just an academic matter, because polls may actually help drive social change. It’s human nature to want to follow the crowd. If you think that Nones are the wave of the future, you’re more likely to call yourself one; if you think that church is a dying institution, you’re more likely to leave. On the basis of these polls, pundits will write stories about the new religious movement; advertisers and other cultural influencers will take note of the polls and factor them into their work. Before you know it, the decline of religion and the rise of the Nones will be matters of conventional wisdom people take for granted. In other words, polls can have a disproportionate social impact, even if they are unreliable.

None of this is to say that organized religion isn’t in fact experiencing a decline; as I say, there are plenty of indications, other than these polls. But I wonder how major polling firms will respond to Wuthnow’s criticisms. At the very least, his essay suggests we should treat surveys on American religion with more caution than we do.

Mideast Christians and Authoritarian Regimes

2000px-Coptic_cross.svgLast week’s ruling in Obergefell took up a lot of attention, but I’ve been meaning to link a couple of good articles about Mideast Christians, specifically, their relationship with authoritarian regimes. Outsiders often criticize Mideast Christians for coming to terms with such regimes. But the regimes are often the best alternative in a terrible situation.

First, at Crux, John Allen has been writing a series on Egypt’s Copts, who are going through one of the worst periods of persecution in their long history. Yesterday, he posted an interesting piece on relations between Copts and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi has made a number of high-profile gestures of solidarity with Copts, including attending a Christmas Liturgy, and the vast majority view him very favorably. The Coptic Church is solidly behind him, and for most Christians, Allen writes, “it’s axiomatic that el-Sisi is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.”

But there are dissenting views. Allen interviews a few Copts who say El-Sisi’s warmth is just for show, and that his regime continues to oppress Copts, just as the Mubarak and Morsi governments did. Crimes against Copts continue to go unpunished, and there is still  “forced displacement, harassment under the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, kidnappings and physical assaults.” Indeed, one commentator reports that, “in virtually every category… the number of incidents today is going up rather than down.” Perhaps Christians’ support for el-Sisi is misplaced–or perhaps, as most Copts argue, el-Sisi is doing all he can to change traditional Egyptian attitudes, and is the best option in a very imperfect situation. My sense, from reading Western news accounts, is that the latter is the case. But I’ll admit Allen’s reporting makes me wonder a bit.

The second is this wide-ranging interview from La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider” with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. Aphrem–who previously served as his church’s archbishop in America, incidentally–discusses a number of topics, including Christians’ relations with the Assad regime. Here’s a snippet:

Some Western circles accuse the Christians of the East of submitting to authoritarian regimes.

“We have not submitted ourselves to Assad and the so-called authoritarian governments. We simply recognise legitimate governments. The majority of Syrian citizens support Assad’s government and have always supported it. We recognise legitimate rulers and pray for them, as the New Testament teaches us. We also see that on the other side there is no democratic opposition, only extremist groups. Above all, we see that in the past few years, these groups have been basing their actions on an ideology that comes from the outside, brought here by preachers of hatred who have come from and are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. These groups receive arms through Turkey too, as the media have shown us.”

You have to read between the lines here. What he’s saying, it seems to me, is not that Assad is wonderful, but that the alternative for Christians is incomparably worse. Aphrem makes other allegations that seem dubious, for example, that the West is arming terrorist groups that are massacring Christians. I guess he’s referring to Turkey’s alleged links with ISIS. Anyway, it’s hard to argue with his basic point that the West should not judge Syria’s Christians for the choices they have to make. Like the Allen piece on Copts, the La Stampa interview is worth reading for a sense of the pressures Mideast Christians face every day.

Movsesian at ICON-S Conference This Week

ICON-S-logoOn Thursday, I’ll be appearing on a panel at the annual ICON-S conference on Public Law, to be held this year at New York University. The conference is sponsored by the International Journal of Constitutional Law, and draws scholars from around the world. My panel, “The Foundation of an Uncertain Law,” will discuss Cambridge’s new collection of commentary on the jurisprudence of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Benedict XVI’s Legal Thought: A Dialogue on the Foundation of Law (Cartabia & Simoncini eds. 2014). Other panelists include Michel Rosenfeld (Yeshiva), Ran Hirschl (Toronto), and John Garvey (Catholic University of America). The panel will be moderated by Sabino Cassese, formerly of the Italian Constitutional Court. CLR Forum readers at the conference, please stop by and say hello!

McGinnis on the Roberts Opinion in King v. Burwell

This isn’t about law and religion, but readers might enjoy John McGinnis’s essay in the City Journal on last week’s decision in the Affordable Care Act case, King v. Burwell. John argues that Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion is principled, though wrong, on statutory interpretation. Did I mention John cites my early scholarship on statutory interpretation? My salad days, before I discovered law and religion.

The Same-Sex Marriage Case

For those who are interested, my quick reaction to yesterday’s ruling in Obergefell is in a symposium today at the First Things website. I discuss the Court’s reasoning and the implications for religious liberty. Here’s a snippet:

First, although some commentators predicted that the Court would issue a narrow, pro-gay marriage ruling, the reasoning of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion is actually quite sweeping, returning the Court to the heady days of substantive due process and unenumerated rights. Forget about textualism and originalism. As Chief Justice Roberts points out in his dissent, even the restraints of “history and tradition,” a limit Justice Harlan once suggested, are effectively shunted aside. A five-justice majority believes that same-sex marriage is a fundamental element of personal liberty, and that makes it a constitutional right.

For constitutional conservatives, this is very disheartening—whatever one’s views on the merits of same-sex marriage as a policy matter. After thirty years and more of trying assiduously to end, or at least limit, substantive due process, the doctrine still carries the day. As Justice Alito writes in his dissent, “Today’s decision shows that decades of attempts to restrain this Court’s abuse of discretion have failed. A lesson that some”—actually, anyone paying attention—“will take from today’s decision is that preaching about the proper method of interpreting the Constitution or the virtues of judicial self-restraint and humility cannot compete with the temptation to achieve what is viewed as a noble end by any practicable means.” Incidentally, today’s ruling demonstrates again how important the 1987 defeat of Robert Bork was, and how much Senate Democrats gained in putting up such a fight against him. It was the defeat of Bork that led to the nomination of Anthony Kennedy.

You can read my analysis, along with the other contributions to the symposium, here.

Conference: “Persecution of Christians in the World” (Brussels)

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For our readers in Europe, the European People’s Party will host a conference at the European Parliament next week on the persecution of Christians around the world:

The Group of the European People’s Party (EPP Group) has the pleasure to invite you to a conference organised by the Intercultural Activities and Religious Dialogue Unit on ‘The Persecution of Christians in the World’. The conference will take place on 1 July 2015 from 14.30-18.00 hrs in the European Parliament in Brussels.

The aim of the conference is to raise awareness at EU level and to provide a follow-up for the Motion for Resolution on the persecution of Christians in the world, in relation to the killing of students in Kenya by terror group al-Shabaab, adopted on 30 April 2015 in Strasbourg by Members of the European Parliament. In this Resolution, Members condemned the persecution of Christians and called on the EU and its Member States to address the persecution of Christians as a priority issue for their foreign policy.

The conference will consist of two parts: the first session will concentrate on the broader Middle East region, notably the cases of Syria and Iraq, and the second on other areas of the world, by giving examples from Asia to Africa.

Interpretation will be provided in ES-DE-EN-FR-IT-HU-PL

The event will take place in Brussels on July 1. Details are here. (H/T: Peggy McGuinness).